Driving down Highway 12, the last remnants of the summer sun sank behind the canyon. Lyn—Alli’s mom and our eager shuttle driver—sat in the passenger seat chatting about all the things that could hurt (or kill) us in the next four days. I knew that cougars and bear were in the area, this was North Idaho after all, but I had tried to compartmentalize their existence to a deep place in my brain labeled ‘least likely to encounter.’ I had to do something, otherwise, I wouldn’t get any sleep.
“Keep an eye out for drunken locals, too,” she said, munching on a potato chip. Karen piped in from the backseat, “Don’t worry, Ashley brought her big ass knife.” It was true. I had packed my 10-inch hunting knife. I don’t hunt, but I do own a ‘big ass knife.’
“Oh, and rattlesnakes.” My ears perked up. I hadn’t thought about rattlesnakes. I had pushed those even farther into my brain than cougar and bear. Basically, I had convinced myself rattlesnakes didn’t exist outside of Hells Canyon. “Just be sure to make a lot of noise if you’re climbing up rocky embankments.” I envisioned screaming “Heeey snake!” in the same tone I use for “Heeey bear!” in the woods. Or clapping my hands in the way Vicky Robinson smacked two sticks together to warn cougars in Parent Trap.
I had been trying to convince myself not to set-up my tent every night and to brave it in the wilds like Karen and Alli. Rattlesnakes? Shit. I was setting up that tent.
My motivation for stand-up paddling 90 miles down the Clearwater River, from the confluence of the Selway, North Fork of the Clearwater and Lochsa to the confluence of the Snake, had many facets. One: three days stand-up paddling with one of my closest friends and a newfound, badass friend, navigating a handful of rapids, drinking champagne in eddies and soaking up sun in between. It just sounded fun. Two: finally getting a multi-day SUP trip under my belt. I had done a handful of backpacking trips, two 40-mile sections of the Appalachian Trail and a three-day hike in the Blue Mountains of Australia, but it had been a while, and I missed that feeling of self-support adventure.
Self-supports have many layers of ‘feelings.’ First, you’re excited but a little nervous about the unpredictable encounters of any overnighter on the fringe of wilderness. Most of the nervousness washes away when you step onto the trail (or push into the water), replaced, again, by the excitement of finally setting off. You ride that excitement through the first entire day. Lay your head down in exhaustion on night one.
By the middle/end of day two you tend to question your motives. Your body is exhausted, your mind is tired and you focus on how much farther you have to go rather than how far you’ve already come. But suffering is half the fun and makes the end of day beers—ahem, White Claws—and dehydrated meals taste so damn good. And then pride comes along on the final day (whether that’s three days later or seven) of having accomplished what you set out to do because now it’s not something you’re ‘going to do,’ it’s something you ‘did.’
I packed too much. I blame my backpacking dormancy and the fact that I didn’t have to actually carry all of it on my back as an excuse to pack more. Plus, as mentioned before, I had planned to pitch a tent to protect me from all the things that wanted to kill and/or ravage me, so there was that piece of gear. (For the record, it was a one-man, backpacker, bivy-plus style of tent.) I was also the group’s photographer.
So, I had a tent. I had a Pelican Box for my camera, lenses and extra battery. I also packed the group’s first aid kit, wag bags—just in case—and throw bag. But basically, I just packed more than the other two women. As I rigged everything (to flip), I wondered if my NRS Escape SUP board would actually float with the additional weight, let alone clear the shallowest sections.
The top section of the Clearwater is pretty shallow. Amazingly clear and rather languid, which made for a dreamy first day. As we launched from Three Rivers Resort, waving goodbye to Lyn, we immediately hit a few riffles, which tested our shaky legs and new-to-us boards. We eddied out on river right at the first sandy beach we scouted and passed the Corkcicle of champagne to officially kick-off our adventure. This routine would become habitual over the next three days. Rapids. Recovery. Champagne. Repeat.
We didn’t have a set plan for camp that first night. The weekend before, Karen and I had driven the highway that follows along the river, highlighting mile markers along the way. We noted landmarks that could hopefully give us an idea of how far we had paddled each day, as well as potential campsites within our estimated paddling goal. A suitable campsite had to be on the opposite side of the road or an island that split the river. A few established campgrounds existed along the way, including a KOA, but most fell short of our daily mileage target.
We didn’t have a strict timeline. With 96 total miles to paddle, we launched on a Thursday morning with plans to takeout on Sunday afternoon, giving ourselves four days to complete it. We knew the first day and a half would be unpredictable in terms of water levels and flow. As a Wild & Scenic River, the Middle Fork of the Clearwater is free-flowing, depending on the snowmelt for its levels.
In late July, the levels were pretty low but the current stayed consistent. At Orofino, Dworshak Dam pumps tons of water into the Clearwater River. Once we reached that point, making miles would be easy. All that being said, we had planned to paddle 20-30 miles each day. If we didn’t hit the max on the first day and a half, we were confident we could make up the time below the dam.
So we eddied out and sipped champagne when the urge called. We buckled down and conquered the riffles and once, just half an hour or so from the put-in, I made my first scramble up an embankment—hollarin’ for snakes—for our first (of a few) frosty beverage refills.
Towering evergreens casted shadows along the river as we made our way farther west. Cable lines and bridges connected the two sides, oftentimes miles in between those connections, the only access to the homes dotted along the river left bank.
We paddled closer to our first major road-side landmark, Dale’s Cashaway, a small gas station and convenience store with overpriced groceries, tackle and ammunition. I’ve stopped at Dale’s many-a-time on my way to and from the Lochsa River. I once stopped simply to wash my windshield after driving through hatch after hatch and could barely see through the splattered insect parts. But this time, our stop at Dale’s involved sidestepping poison ivy—which we recognized a few steps too late—and crawling up another embankment, all for the hopes of a bag of ice to restock Alli’s cooler and a couple of legitimately cold beers (which turned out to be skunked).
As the sun began to lower below the pines, we paddled near a large beach. Karen pulled out her map to pinpoint our exact location, and although she was a little surprised by our progress, she was certain that, yes, we’d marked this spot as an optional camp. A few kids splashed by the shore. A jeep sat parked in the sand, so although this beach fit the ‘split the river’ criteria, somehow it was still accessible from the road.
As we got closer, I couldn’t help but keep my attention to the far-left bank, where it seemed that three men were watching us, one with binoculars held tight to his face. Sure, he could have been birding, but the uncomfortable catcalls of old-enough-to-know-better men made me think otherwise. Instead of eddying out and making camp here, we opted to dig just a little deeper and paddle on to an RV camp a mile or so farther. While not totally out of reach from Leery Binoculars, we found comfort in neighboring campers.
A patch of grass at the corner of the campground beckoned us with shade. We created a crude triangle with our boards, purging our gear in the middle. An aging fence along the edge of the campground gave us ample space for drying out our layers. The pings of civilization disrupted the evening as our phones—used solely for taking Insta-worthy pics—recharged. We checked in with our families, ate rehydrated meals out of the bag and turned our stand-up paddleboards into sleeping pads.
I didn’t set up my tent.
I would be lying if I said I slept amazingly because I did not. But for once, the terror of large critters and/or ill-intentioned humans weren’t to blame. It was the damn mosquitoes. Note to self: when assuming that you will be too chicken shit to sleep under the stars, pack a bug net just in case you find that ounce of bravery. I thought I would have woken up proud of myself, but I just woke up tired and covered in welts. I alternated between sleeping fully cocooned in my sleeping bag as a reprieve from the bloodsuckers and peeking just my nose out for a little fresh air. When I fell back asleep, I inadvertently exposed more parts of my body, which mosquitoes immediately attacked, waking me up.
As the water boiled for coffee and brekkie, we rearranged our gear bags. I had taken a minor swim the day before during a set of shallow ripples. Despite the confidence I had in my rigging, she was not ‘rigged to flip.’ Luckily, I had properly sealed my dry bag, and Karen managed to wrangle my sleep kit before it beat us to the Snake. So, I had to up my strap game for day two.
We pushed off mid-morning with a ritual champagne toast. We raised our ‘glasses’ this time to the assistance of a kayaker friend who lived in Kooskia. When he saw we were crashing at Long Camp, he stopped by with a bottle of chilled bubbly and a couple of beers. We refilled our Corkcicle and left the empty bottle with him—no glass on the river, y’all!
The landscape of the Clearwater began to change as we paddled that second day. Although the CFS hadn’t changed overnight, the wide channels of the day before began to narrow in places, creating tighter canyons. Because that same volume of water passes through a narrower area, the constriction creates some fun rapids and challenging river features, especially for us as beginner whitewater stand-up paddlers.
All three of us are familiar with reading water and making (fairly) strong decisions in the moment. Throughout the course of the day we learned to not only read the water and angle into the tongue of the flow, we became comfortable with the feel of the board as we forfeited our control to the river. With each rapid, our number one goal was to stay on our feet. But we congratulated and hollered for each other, even if we had to pop down to our knees. And for the unsuccessful moments when bailing was the only option, we eddied out and relaxed until the shaky legs had subsided from whichever one of us had swam.
We filled the silence with word games. Yelling out clues across the river and squealing like schoolgirls when we guessed the right answer. As we paddled closer to Orofino, we began to share the river with more and more recreators. We had only seen one or two paddlers the day before, but the weekend had kicked off a little earlier for these boaters and floaters just out to soak up some Friday afternoon sun.
By late afternoon we rewarded our 20-plus mile day with a late lunch at a riverside pub. I savored every bite of my Philly Cheesesteak and washed it down with a spicy Bloody Mary. Once we pushed off from Orofino, the dam would immediately pump tons of water into the Clearwater drastically increasing the current. During lunch we scoured GoogleMaps for possible campsites. The closer we paddled to Lewiston, the more populous the area became, and the risk of more Leery Binoculars increased. After spending the first night in a legit park, we all agreed that we’d rather repeat that than just eddy out at a random spit of sand.
Pink House Recreation Site had a tent spot open. We made the reservation, dipped one last fry into ranch and pushed off for our final slog of day two.
I had originally envisioned this trip to be wild and fully self-supported. But when Lyn showed up at camp with take-out pizza and frozen, in-a-bag daiquiris I didn’t dare complain. We filled her in on the past two days of paddling. At that point, we had paddled 58 road miles, knocking off 29 miles each day. According to the math, we had 38.5 miles left to go and two days to do it. But could we do it one? Our miles per hour had been strong, even without a pushy current. With the added levels from the dam, we felt confident we could push ourselves a little harder and knock out the remaining 38.5 miles in one day.
We didn’t account for the wind.
We waited around camp the next morning for two reporters from the Lewiston Tribune to come interview us for a story. Alli had reached out to the paper about our trip and they were interested in covering it. The photographer had followed along the highway the day before snapping photos from the road above and, lucky for our egos, missed our biggest swim. But now they wanted to ask us questions and take photos of the rigging process.
The stardom delayed our start, but by 10:30 we were crushing our miles. In fact, in less than an hour we had paddled 13 miles and were coming up on Big Eddy. Big Eddy is a recreation site that Karen and I have often paddled around. As its namesake suggests, the river bends around the campground, creating a big eddy on river left. It’s the perfect place to take laps on new boards. In fact, a couple of times in the past I had come out with NRS’s product development team to test out new SUP designs.
Depending on the water levels, as the river bends, underwater debris and features create a punchy wave train. Big Eddy had been on my mind this entire trip. I had never successfully stand-up paddled the entire rapid. I wanted to conquer it, but we had knocked out those 13 miles so quickly, I forgot to mentally prepare.
After a quick pit-stop, we peeled back into the current. I steadied my feet, focused on the water directly in front of my board and nailed my line. In fact, we all nailed our lines and with that boost of confidence, I knew it was going to be a good day.
The winds set in around noon. Funneling up the canyon, winds on the Clearwater are common and brutal. The word games stopped. If we stopped paddling, we stopped going forward. The added wind turned the current choppy and swirly. Whirlpools popped up, mixing with eddylines and challenging our balance more than anything had before. At one point, a whirlpool caught my board, flipped it and sucked me under. After a savage couple of minutes, I righted my board and huddled on the deck in exhaustion. I started to feel an unwelcoming resistance from the river that I hadn’t felt the first two days.
When we reached the Clearwater Casino, we eddied out to discuss our options. Splurge on a room at the casino and spend the evening gambling, paddle the final ten miles in the morning, or keep going? After paddling 80 miles, it seemed silly not to power through the final ten. We gave Lyn a progress report and naively estimated we would arrive at our planned take-out in a couple of hours.
In a couple of hours, I don’t think we had paddled half the distance we’d estimated. By then, Lyn had called my phone so many times that it had died. Her last text said, “30+ mph headwinds, get your asses off the river.” (Or something to that effect.) We kept paddling.
Hours later, we reached the paper mill. It was a harsh transition from the braided channels of a wilderness river to the urban environment of industry. Steam spewed from the smokestacks and brusque metal signs warned of a strong water intake. The river’s choppy waters had turned to crashing waves. If we stopped paddling, we would flip. If we flipped, the risk of drowning was high. We couldn’t take a break to drink water. We hadn’t eaten since camp. We could only paddle. At this point, standing on our boards wasn’t even an option.
From the confluence of the three rivers to the Snake River is 97.8 miles. We don’t know for sure, but we’re confident in saying we paddled 96 of those miles. With the take-out in sight (but unattainable), we opted to bail and scrambled up a rock jetty, which was probably illegal.
Motorboats were being told to leave the river; we probably should have quit long before we did. In the heat of the moment, in the determination to finish what we set out to do, we made some questionable decisions. But at the end of the day, we made the right one, even if it meant we wouldn’t complete our goal. But there’s beauty in the perspective of ‘failing,’ although, in my opinion we far from ‘failed.’
Sometimes we just have to admit that the river is stronger than us and she deserves to stay that way. I would say, ‘til next time,’ but I’m proud of what we accomplished and to be honest, that final day’s sufferfest fell outside of the boundaries of Type 2 fun.